15 November 2010

From Small Pond to ‘The Big Land’

Since we moved to Small Pond, I haven’t had much of a chance to travel, but I recently had the privilege of spending a week in Labrador with ArtsCan Circle, a charitable organization that sends teams of volunteer musicians and artists to remote Canadian Indigenous communities to link creative artists with children and youth at risk. I was asked to go and make puppets with school children, and if there’s one thing I cannot resist it’s the opportunity to make puppets and share my love of the art form with anyone who will listen.

Lake Melville
This was my first time to Labrador, and my first trip with ArtsCan Circle. I had a fairly good idea what to expect, as my good friend David Anderson has been volunteering with them for years, and had shared a lot of his experiences with me. To get there I took a taxi to Belleville, a train to Toronto, a flight to Halifax, and another flight to Goose Bay. En route I met up with 2 of my fellow artists, Jessica Levman, former art teacher at Sheshatshiu Innu School, where we were headed, and Magoo, singer/songwriter extraordinaire. It was a long day of travelling, and we were all completely delirious and exhausted, so naturally the first thing we did when we arrived in Goose Bay was head to a surreal jungle-themed restaurant for fish and chips. Our bellies full of cod, we retired to our respective hotel rooms and passed out cold.

Sign in Goose Bay.  We're not in Kansas any more, Toto.
We were up early the next morning, and drove to Sheshatshiu, about a half hour drive. The landscape reminded me in some ways of Alberta, where I grew up, with tall dark pine trees and mountains on the horizon. The air was crisp and cold, and there was only a sprinkle of snow here and there.

View from the school.
The people of Sheshatshiu (population 1276) are Innu, and for most of them their first language is Innu-aimun. The Innu were one of the last Aboriginal people in Canada to give up much of their traditional way of life, and as can be seen with countless indigenous peoples across our country and throughout the world, such changes can have disastrous consequences. High levels of alcohol and substance abuse, domestic violence, and high suicide rates are a depressing reality. It would be naïve of me to try and encapsulate here the complex history of the Innu, but I think it’s fair to say that this community has experienced much grief and loss over the last 50 years. But things in Sheshatshiu are starting to change, and for the better; and ArtsCan Circle regularly visits this community to help be part of that positive movement.

That's me in the middle of the crush of kindergarteners and sock puppets.
Upon arriving at the school, Jessica and I made ourselves at home in the art room and became the self-professed puppet tag-team. Class after class streamed in and out of the art room, children from kindergarten through high school, and we made both sock puppets and shadow puppets with them. To our delight almost all of the kids responded to puppet-making with enthusiasm.

Sock puppet appeal reaches far and wide!
Kids that I thought were too old or too cool or too tough to like sock puppets could be found huddled around the hot glue gun meticulously affixing moustaches and eyebrows to their new companions. Kids that I thought were too young to appreciate the slightly-more-conceptual shadow puppets were eager to create representations of Labrador animals (Sasquatches and worms included). One group of seventh graders seemed particularly keen, so we decided to spend a bit more time with them and work towards putting on a shadow puppetry show at the end of the week.

One of many shadow puppetry classes.
To that end, we invited an elder to come in to the school and tell the class a traditional story. He told a story that had been told to him by his mother, “Wolverine Invited the Birds to the Drum Dance,” first in Innu, then in English. We then interpreted the story for presentation: who are the characters? What happens first? Second? Third? The students each chose a character to create, and in no time we had a whole flock of shadow puppets. We set up the screen and the projector in the classroom and I attempted to act as director. The rehearsals were rough and wild, but it was all process over product. Whatever happened when it came time to do the show, well, que sera sera.

Elder Penote Antuan tells a story to the class.
Mike Stevens, the fourth artist to join our merry band, arrived Monday night. Mike is the founder of ArtsCan Circle, and he is a musical phenomena with the harmonica. I had the chance to watch Magoo and Mike play music with kids thoughout the week, and I was blown away by the way they could totally capture the childrens’ attention and inspire them with music.

Magoo and Mike rock out with the kids in music class.
The week went on, and class after class partook in our frenzy of puppet-making. Friday finally arrived and I was wondering if any of the kids would actually show up to do the show; teachers had warned me not to get my hopes up. But sure enough, almost all of them were there, and we quickly got set up in the music room.

“Puppeteers, places please!”

The audience started arriving before the students had too much time to get nervous. Then the lights turned off, and we began the show.

The view from backstage.
The musicians provided some accompaniment, and three student narrators took turns at the microphone to tell the story.  It was a beautiful thing to stand backstage and watch the singular focus of the fledgling puppeteers as they performed, all eyes cast on the screen, listening for their cues… it was a magical moment when it all came together, and you could see the pride on their faces when it was all over.

The title of the show in Innu.
Visiting Sheshatshiu was a life-changing experience. I know how much art has meant in my life, and it is such a pleasure to share it with children, especially in a community where the joy and hope that art can bring is so needed. It was an emotionally challenging week, but I was rewarded a hundred fold with smiles and laughter, rampant affection, and the gratification of seeing students succeed in putting on a show that tells a story from their own culture. I will never forget this experience, and I’m already looking forward to my next trip with ArtsCan Circle in January, this time to the community of Natuashish, Labrador.

A very, very happy young audience!
If you, too, want to be an agent for change, you can donate to ArtsCan Circle. Click here to find out how.


  1. Aw this is an awesome post sister :-) Those children are adorable and you can see how happy they are with themselves! I hope one day you can come to Brookie's school and show them how it's done!

  2. beautiful post sister. taking ideas and bringing them to life is a truly powerful and magical thing, and when putting that in the hands of children, anything can happen. what a wonderful opportunity for everyone involved. so proud of you :)